I am first generation Italian on my mom’s side. Second generation on my dad’s side.
My mom emigrated from Vasto Italy when she was four, traveling with her siblings, Lucy, Lena (Anglea), her older sisters, and younger brother, Nicola (Uncle Nick). My nonna, Grazia, and my nonno, Gaetano were garden variety Italian immigrants in search of a better life for themselves and their kids.
I remember visiting Nonna in the Bronx every Thursday after kindergarten. Her apartment at the Dennis Lane complex on Crotona Avenue is iconic in my mind. The smells that emanated from the hallway surrounding their apartment propelled me into constantly thinking about food. For the rest of my life..cheese, meat, pizza, sauce, sausage. I don’t remember a moment in time when she wasn’t cooking something. I owe my childhood Venus Di Milo figure to her.
I came to understand after those cursory trips to Arthur Avenue that I could recall, probably from about four on, that the Italian diet, although the thrifty immigrants used every part of that poor, butchered creature of God so a to not waste a literal hair of the animal was a lot of the time, gross.
Until you went food shopping with Nonna, you hadn’t shopped. There was no feeling sorry for the dismembered rabbit skinned and hanging feet first in the butcher shop n Arthur Avenue, similar to the new Louis Neverfull on display on the flagship store at Piazza d’Spagna.
Thumper was destined to be supper, lunch the next day and possibly in a soup on day three, or a lagomorphe stew.
The lambs didn’t have it any easier…Easter dinner carnage also doubled as a tasty hit for an upcoming meat sauce, and never ever doubt the power of presenting a tasty capuzzelle…a stuffed lamb’s head to complete the Bovidae roster. I found the entire dining concept repulsive, but I know for a fact as a younger, less cognizant diner, I was fed many treasures that I would use now as an emetic in a dangerous situation.
For instance, tripe. I was brought a gorgeous plate of this shit covered in Nonna’s tomato sauce, which I loved. Nonna said, “U-ah try. Its-A very good.” I did. Except for the fact the texture was that of a plastic tongue with tiny bumps combined with a deflated volleyball, once I chewed it enough to swallow it, I kind of liked it. Until big brother Steve ruined the moment with…”You know you’re eating pig stomach.” What the fuck?
Moment ruined. He then said, “or maybe the cow.” Omg, that just makes it so much better.
And the other thing…sanguinaccio. Do you see the correlation with the latin root in the beginning? Sangue=blood. Fucking blood pudding. Why? Because the sausage, bacon, pancetta, chops, feet, ears of that poor, unsuspecting porker wasn’t enough…nothing goes to waste so we made…dessert! And the banner in the butcher was hung so proudly that they carried this delicacy, as if they had sold the winning ticket in the 500m Powerball. My mother would get so excited they had sanguinaccio she bought it to take home to my father. All Italians are fucking nuts.
Let’s move along to one of my favorites because it sounds yummy…sweetbreads. Duped again. Sweet and bread are just a deviation tactic and alias to get you stick your fork in it and savor the delicacy of this mouth-watering, succulent nectar of the gods. Innards. Plain and simple. A leftover from a slaughterfest, because Italians throw nothing out. My mother loved them beyond, but nobody in my house, including my father would eat them. She would order them when we were out. Not like they were so readily available, but that made them even more desirable.
My mother ordered calves’ brains once in a restaurant and I went to the bathroom at the same time, or whatever I was doing not paying attention, and when they arrived on site, looked yummy. Again, Steve said, “those are chicken cutlets.” My mother chuckled and rolled her eyes at him, but they looked like good cutlets. I tried one, and the texture was soft, slimy,and very bizarre to my mouth. They almost melted and certainly didn’t taste like chicken.
I said, “Steve, you lied.” He laughed this really evil, diabolic laugh and said, “Ha, ha..they are calves brains.” I hated him from that day forward.
I never liked fish as a kid, but I’ll tell you, after the Italian leftover experience, I had no problem eating Nonna’s whiting with the parsley and olive oil. I even preferred the bones over some cow tongue.
If that’s one thing the freakish, grotesque immigrant practice of using every last drop taught me, it was how to love fish. Give me smelly baccala’ any day…and I never thought I would say that.
But in the end, nothing was wasted…all was appreciated.
All was loved. All resources consumed to provide for their families and birth a new life. Sacrifices made so my children would never starve or want. Parenting at its best.